Learning is limb-walking.
There’s a unique thrill in stepping out on a branch, in following your curiosity. The view may be unfamiliar, even discomfiting, but a great education is full of leaps, small and large.
At Williams, effective this semester, a new mechanism is in place to encourage students to stretch, to reach beyond their majors, to extend their comfort zones. Its creators hope it will enhance a kind of intellectual skydiving—with a newfangled parachute.
It’s called the Gaudino Option.
And, no, despite certain similarities, this isn’t a pass/fail just like everybody else’s. It’s been described as a “smart” pass/fail, in part because invoking it requires that a student demonstrate to the instructor of a given course his or her “intellectual presence.” Furthermore, the process by which it was adopted attests to the desire by the Williams faculty to get this right. As new President Adam Falk remarked at the time of the faculty debate, “I’ve not seen anything like this elsewhere.”
The Way It Works…
Students can declare a G-option at the beginning of the semester, starting as early as the spring semester of first year and as late as the fall semester of senior year.
No more than one G-option course per semester, and at most two in an undergraduate career, is permitted. A G-option course may not be used to satisfy divisional or other college requirements, nor may the G-option be invoked for any course that fulfills major or concentration requirements unless it is the very first course taken in that major or concentration.
The student may ask the registrar’s office to invoke the G-option within 30 days after grades are posted. To apply the option, the course grade has to be no lower than the lesser of: (a) the student’s current GPA minus 0.67; or (b) the grade of B-. In addition, the registrar will ask the instructor of the course to assert that the student was “intellectually present.” If either of these conditions is not met, then the grade earned cannot be removed. “Intellectual presence” implies regular attendance, full participation and completion of all required work. Some instructors may have other requirements, which they will make clear on the course’s first-day handout/syllabus.
The story of the G-option, as it has come to be called, unfolded as follows.
Despite its name, the Gaudino Option did not begin with Professor Robert Gaudino; that rubric came later. The notion was born of a conversation.
Seated in math professor Edward Burger’s office in February 2009, a student confided that he was struggling to find his way at Williams. He was the first in his family to attend college and, Burger recalls, “he shared with me a sense that his very well-meaning family saw Williams as his chance to raise himself, that the better he does here, the better he will do later.” As they talked, Burger came to understand that these familial expectations were having an important—and limiting—impact on the character of the sophomore’s college experience. “He felt this pressure to stay in a narrow channel. His family had made it clear that this was not the time to play.”
Thinking of the moment many months later, Burger almost explodes. “But this is the time to play!”he exclaims. At a time when the student should have been following his curiosity and testing his talents, he was taking few chances, opting to take courses that would enable him to maintain a high grade-point average.
Student and math professor were soon engaged in problem solving. Burger posed a question: Suppose you could take a class that would be an intellectual reach and, after completing it, if you didn’t do as well as you liked you could have the grade disappear. Would you make the leap?
After a moment, the student replied, “ThatI could sell to my mother.”
“Conceptually,” Ed Burger remembers, “the Gaudino Option was born.”
Burger set out to learn more. During reading period in December 2009, he conducted a survey. More than half the students surveyed responded; more notable still, 81 percent of them admitted to avoiding a class in which they were interested because of grade concerns.
“To me,” says Burger, “that’s a problem of epidemic proportions.”
Pass/fail options in differing guises have been around for decades. In the 1960s, Harvard, Columbia and countless other colleges adopted pass/fail grading under certain circumstances; at some colleges today, the entire freshman classes take all their first semester courses pass/fail. But at Williams, where the norm remains four graded courses per semester, the pass/fail option has traditionally been available only for a fifth course, and no course graded “pass” can be used to fulfill graduation requirements. To introduce pass/fail into the mainstream—even as a variant of the sort Burger was contemplating—would signal a change in the College’s academic culture.
One of the godfathers of the G-option would prove to be Robert L. Gaudino (1925-74), the legendary Williams professor whose pedagogy and influence were revisited in the recent documentary Mr. Gaudino by Paul Lieberman ’71 (see http://tinyurl.com/MrGaudino). As the 2008-2010 Gaudino Scholar, it was Burger’s charge to advance Gaudino’s ideas. Burger saw Gaudino’s passion for the “unsettling experience” of travel (to India, to the Deep South, to Appalachia) and for fostering “uncomfortable learning” as entirely compatible with inviting undergraduates to explore fresh academic terrain.
Thereby the proposal gained its name.
A mixture of faculty, administrators and students engaged in the following months in framing a specific proposal for campus-wide consideration. Conversations, casual and official, ensued. The Gaudino Ad Hoc Advisory Committee was formed, consisting of five students, nine professors (one of them former Dean of the College Karen Merrill) and Registrar Charles Toomajian. Several members of the ad hoc committee also sat on the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP), the body at the College charged with evaluating and implementing curriculum changes.
This was a team effort to shape a fleeting idea into a proposal; strictures and structure emerged. The rationale, the time line, procedures, governing authorities, limitations and other defining characteristics of the G-option and its implementation were rendered onto two pages, one each for faculty and students. With the Gaudino Committee and the CEP on board, the Gaudino option was ready for consideration by the full faculty at the March 10, 2010, faculty meeting.
That isn’t to say that, from the start, there hadn’t been skeptics. Pass/fail options have a mixed history; perhaps the most common criticism has been that they can function as a disincentive for a student to engage completely in a course. In absence of the fear of a lower grade, students may coast through their pass/fail courses, giving less than their best efforts. That would run counter to the very intent of the G-option.
After much discussion, the framers of the Gaudino option devised a double remedy, which is among the most intriguing aspects of the proposal. First of all, the G-option can be invoked only if the student’s grade in the course is a B– or higher or if the grade is no more than two-thirds of a grade below his or her GPA. Then, in order for a student to invoke the G-option, he or she must have been, in the judgment of the instructor, “intellectually present.” If the professor adjudges the student not to have been intellectually present, the grade earned will remain on the transcript. In short, option denied. It is in this fail-safe in which the ethos of Williams is perhaps most apparent.
While the moment of conception has a Hopkinsian aspect—Burger and the undergraduate facing one another (without the log)—the formal adoption of the G-option occurred at the dawn of another presidency. Adam Falk, who took office on April 1, made the journey from Johns Hopkins to be in attendance at the March faculty meeting.
Falk was impressed by the process. “I witnessed an extremely nuanced discussion of how we would like our students to understand the experience at Williams. And what we ought to be doing to enable them to profit from their time here. It was clear that the faculty felt deeply that getting this right was their job.”
At the meeting, no fewer than 10 faculty members took the floor to offer comment. More than one expressed concern that the G-option might actually lead to further grade inflation; in response, Burger described a statistical analysis he had conducted. His data indicated that the average change upward would be as small as one-twenty-fifth of a point.
Others worried at the logistical complexity of the proposal. Still others warmed to the notion that it offered the students some “kindness,” while another observed that, given its place in the alphabet after the letter “F,” a “G” might be read by potential employers as emblematic of failure.
Following the debate, a vote was taken. The motion to adopt the Gaudino grading proposal passed by a vote of 57 to 29.
The Gaudino option is now in place for five years (a sunset clause requires that the faculty vote for permanent ratification; absenting such approval, the option expires at the end of the specified term). To judge by reports in the Williams Record, the G-option is receiving a robust welcome by students (see http://tinyurl.com/2cpjxzu and http://tinyurl.com/25hdak7). No hard data can emerge until after the close of the fall semester when students who designated courses decide whether to invoke the Gaudino option or not, but 88 percent of respondents to Burger’s original survey indicated they would take advantage of the G-option if enacted.
Ed Burger, currently the Lissack Professor of Social Responsibility and Personal Ethics, offers a weather report from another front. He speaks regularly to alumni groups; there, too, the responses to the G-option tend to the enthusiastic. Repeatedly alums have come up to him after his lectures to confide their own academic experience. “Not only do they like idea—they actually name the courses they had deliberately avoided!”
Which raises the inevitable question: Which limb would you walk out on? — HH